Or even better, the uncomputer.
When I think about what today's operating systems are -- Windows, OS X, Linux, etc -- I mostly seem them as collections of application programming interfaces (APIs) that give developers easy access to resources (displays, networks, file systems, user interfaces, etc.).
Separately, I've been following the Web 2.0 discourse between ZDNet bloggers Richard McManus, Russell Shaw, and Joe McKendrick. By the very name of his blog (Web 2.0 Explorer), McManus appears to be in the "Web 2.0 exists" camp. However, in saying "Web 2.0 is a marketing slogan," Shaw (our IP Telephony, VoIP, Broadband blogger) is in the "Web 2.0 doesn't exist" camp. Rising to Web 2.0's defense is our Service Oriented Architecture blogger McKendrick who recently wrote Yes Russell, There is a Web 2.0. But in his "other blog," even McManus is now questioning the wisdom of the Web 2.0 moniker (see Web 2.0 is dead, R.I.P.) and Shaw, who, judging by the art on his most recent post, apparently feels as though he has started a World Wide Web War.
Web 2.0? Not that I want to get into the middle of a WWWW, but If you ask me, it's more like Computer 2.0. The computer that we've come to know and love is quickly becoming a thing of the past (thus, the "uncomputer") and quickly taking its place (and drawing developers in droves) is a new collection of APIs (this time Internet-based ones) and database interfaces being offered by outfits like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Salesforce.com, eBay, Technorati, and Amazon (as well as smaller private enterprises, governments, and other businesses).
Whereas the old collections of APIs (the operating systems) were the platforms upon which the most exciting and innovative application development took place, the new collection is where the action is at, spawning a whole new compelling breed of applications. Barely a day goes by where some new mashup -- the creative merger of one or more of these APIs with each other and/or with a public or private database -- doesn't appear on the Web. Three of my recent innovative favorites (with real value to Internet users) come from ParkingCarma.com (for parking availability in San Francisco), ZipRealty (for merging interactive mapping with the Multiple Listing Service's list of homes for sale), and (as a parent) mapsexoffenders.com (you can guess what it does).
In many ways, this new collection of APIs fulfills the old Sun tagline that the "network is the computer." Not only is the old computer becoming a relic of the past, so too is the manner in which classical operating systems -- even open source ones -- are updated and maintained. Not that I want to start a religious war, but even the "official" kernels of open source operating systems like Linux are subject to the oversight of tight-knit councils of digerati. Relatively speaking, proprietary operating systems (again, collections of APIs) like Windows are far more cathedral-like in their development than are open source operating systems like Linux.
But, when you look at the new operating system -- this new collection of Internet-bound APIs -- aren't they even less cathedral-like than Linux? After all, anybody (and I mean ANYBODY) can enhance this "new OS" by adding their own API at any time. Either by way of internal development or acquisition (ie: del.icio.us and Flickr), some Internet titans are not only growing their API portfolios by leaps and bounds, but using the word "platform" to describe the portfolios. While those short-tail platforms will undoubtedly be very compelling to developers, I wouldn't rule out some excitement in the long-tail of APIs. Harkening back to the 80's, some of the best stuff (including uber, cross-"platform" APIs) will come not from the multi-million dollar labs in Silcon Valley or China, but from someone's garage. There is some great disruption ahead of us. No one should be resting on their laurels.
Compared to what we're used to, this rapid proliferation of easily accessible APIs is so, uh, so uncomputer-like. Whether or not those new APIs get used is a different story. But the point is that there's no roundtable of Jedi Knights through which all proposed kernel changes must pass. And, much the same way new mashups keep showing up every day, so too, as TechCrunch editor Mike Arrington constantly reports, do the APIs (Arrington is demonstrating a knack for getting the scoop on new APIs, blogging about them almost as soon as they become available).
Still not convinced of the uncomputer? Well, then consider this: not only is anybody free to add a new API at anytime, the primary user interface -- a browser -- almost never needs updating to take advantage of those new APIs. Pretty uncomputer-like. Compare that to what happens when a classic operating system takes on new APIs. The upgrade cycle can be incredibly painful, requiring all sorts of special hardware, new software and budget exercises that, years from now, when millions of mashed-up applications are available to anybody -- regardless of what technology they have in front of them -- there will be a lot of people looking back at the old way of doing things saying "What in the world were we thinking? Why didn't we do this sooner?"
Finally, there's an ecosystem story here that needs to be told. The one that's the reason why this new collection of APIs is so much more compelling to developers than the old collection. It's called "reach" but is otherwise known as target market. Given that the new collection of APIs is so much more enabling to application developers than the old collection (not only do they abstract resource access, they abstract real information access as well), and given how rapidly "mashup artists" (a term coined by Mary Hodder in one of my recent conversations with her) can roll-out their applications (try mapbuilder.net, you'll be amazed at what it does for a specific type of rapid mashup development [RMD]), surely there must be some catch.
Can developers possibly have their cake and eat it too? With this ecosystem, the answer is yes. Why? Because out there in the world, there are a lot of people who don't have OS X to run OS X apps, and a lot of people who don't have Windows to run Windows apps, and a lot of people who don't have Linux to run Linux apps. But there's hardly anyone who doesn't have a browser. And not until this new collection of APIs showed up -- expanding daily -- have application developers been exposed to such a rich and easy ecosystem to work; one that offers such incredibly broad access to virtually the entire market. No computer required. The uncomputer.
[Update 12/23/05: If you're a mashup artist or one of the many new API providers contributing to the uncomputer, then Mashup Camp may be for you. For more information, check out my first blog entry about Mashup Camp or contact me at email@example.com. Tagged @ Technorati under Mashup Camp and MashupCamp]